Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Chaya as an Edible Hedge

This week we ate our very first chaya leaves. Here's a brief introduction to Chaya.   Our chaya plant was ordered from a nursery and planted about a year ago, melted down in this spring's freezes, and came back  from the roots when the weather warmed.

Chaya loves hot weather and can tolerate some drought and some very wet conditions as long as the roots are not constantly waterlogged.  The plant is now more like a small bush.  The leaves are broad and remind me a little of the shape of papaya leaves.  There are small white flowers, nothing stunning from a landscaping standpoing, BUT...from a butterfly's, a true magnet.  This small bush is constantly visited by butterflies, moreso than any other  plant we have.
Chaya leaves washed and put into pot with sea salt before cooking
There are a couple things to bear in mind with the Chaya plant before I emphasize the ease with which it's grown and harvested.  First, some varieties of Chaya have stinging properties similar to stinging nettles.  I found this out with my bare hands (ha!)...the feel is not unbearable but would have been if I had continued collecting the leaves barehanded.  The rash is immediate and feels like ant stings.  I went inside and immediately rinsed my hand with lemon dish detergent (my downhome remedy for stopping certain types of irritants) and only had slight irritation after that.

With that said, if you have a choice, plant the non-stinging variety.  The stinging variety is just as edible as the non-stinging variety...there is no sting after cooking.  ECHO carries the non-stinging variety, and we'll try getting some starts from them next spring if all goes well.
I didn't find much in the way of YouTube vids for this plant, but this one shows the irritation the stinging variety can produce when touching it:

The second important thing to remember with Chaya is that in order to be eaten, IT MUST BE FULLY COOKED...in a non-aluminum pan.  Cooking it in aluminum cookware produces an irritating effect when eaten. The leaves need to be boiled/simmered for 20 minutes and then are deliciously edible (and the cooking liquid by then is safe, too.) It's compared to spinach in taste, but I think the taste is unlike spinach and is tastier ...and I do love spinach!
 This is NOT a plant that is safe to eat raw.  There are cyanides present that boiling a few minutes immediately removes and renders the leaves safe while remaining nutritious and making the nutrients available to our bodies.  The nutrient count far exceeds nearly all in-ground greens commonly found in the garden...amazing.  But the leaves MUST be cooked.
...and when they ARE cooked (here is tried our first batch with chopped onions and a pinch of sea salt), they are mild, hearty, and delicious.  We now mix these with our moringa leaves for a powerpacked pot of greens and serve them with a mix of cooked black beans and small red beans seasoned with Creole seasoning.  The beans, the greens...are unbelievably satisfying.  Jack does not feel the need to eat red meat after eating those, and I never thought I'd see that day!  It energizes him with strength for his physically-demanding job in a way he seldom feels otherwise.  We're SO thankful we've tried this.  Chaya is packed with superb nutrition and is great mixed with other favorite greens.
Here's what the small bush looks like.  When we get the non-stinging type, we'd like to grow enough of them for a hedge...and edible hedge...that doesn't need weeding, oh Yeah!!

The plant can be propagated from cuttings.  We'll be sure to include this anywhere we want to enjoy watching those colorful pollinators.  The plant is not invasive since it doesn't spread easily by seeding.  The plant is amazingly disease-free and isn't bothered by pests or fungus.  The plant is very clean and harvesting is as simple as cutting the leaves (with gloves on, if it's the stinging variety), rinsing them, and cooking them.
A closeup of the small white blossoms...
...a bud?  I don't know the plant well enough to know yet.  I know this is a great plant for some of the hotter areas of the South.  Contacting an organization like ECHO would be great for learning to customize it to the South's growing conditions.

Picking super-nutritious leaves from a hedge and having them for dinner...is the BEST :)

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